Toy Maker Hits it Big by Going Small

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Alan Dorfman with Super Impulse’s World’s Smallest Etch A Sketch
Alan Dorfman with Super Impulse’s World’s Smallest Etch A Sketch
(Photo by Amanda Lau)

Over 30 years in the toy business, Alan Dorfman’s literally been able to take this concept to the bank: Size matters.

For 20 years, Dorfman owned a company called Basic Fun. During the Clinton years, Basic Fun hit on one of the longer-lasting fads among that era’s suburban tweens — miniaturized versions of well-known toys on keychains. Like Airwalks and Stüssy T-shirts, like Tamagotchis and Shark watches and Beanie Babies, they quickly became fetishized status symbols — the more affixed to one’s backpack, the better.

“We kind of just stumbled on a formula that worked,” Dorfman recalled. “Kids started collecting them, and then, in order to show off their collection, they started hanging them on their backpacks. For a trend, that lasted unusually long.”

In 2008, Dorfman sold Basic Fun. Not long after, the company’s new ownership decided it wanted to go in a different direction with its product line; it stopped making those miniaturized toys that had been all the rage just a few years prior.

But Dorfman knew something they didn’t — the demand was still there.

“A couple years went by, and people kept asking for the stuff,” said Dorfman of the shrunken classics. “So we decided that the timing was right, that there had been enough of a lull in the industry.”

In 2014, Dorfman started a new company, Super Impulse, based in Bristol, Bucks County. In 2015, Super Impulse launched what has since become its signature product line, World’s Smallest.

They didn’t change the original concept much. A principal difference this time around is that Super Impulse’s new creations have shed one key vestigial appendage.

“I thought that key chains may have been played out,” Dorfman said. “What everybody loved anyway was the smallness, the miniature, so let’s just go straight at it and do the world’s smallest.”

The results suggest Dorfman knows his business.

World’s Smallest’s first offering, World’s Smallest Super Soaker, sold more than 5 million pieces. The big-box retailers took notice, and now the greatly expanded World’s Smallest line is sold at Target, Walmart and on Amazon.

Included in World’s Smallest’s ever-growing catalogue — to name just a few — are time-worn favorites like G.I. Joe, Transformers, Mr. Potato Head, Rubik’s Cube, Etch A Sketch and Silly Putty.

The last three are Dorfman’s favorite individual pieces, but Dorfman is quick to point out that the line as a whole is much more than diminutive reproductions of other toy companies’ most famous creations. Often, Dorfman explained, going smaller involves more moving parts, especially if the goal is for the toy to work.

“A lot of times, people look at a product and think, ‘It’s very small; it must be very inexpensive,’ but it’s actually sometimes more complicated to build in small size — picture a well-made watch,” Dorfman said. “Oftentimes, you can’t automate the production process because the parts are so small they have to be hand done. With figures like Barbie or G.I. Joe, the bases have to be handpainted, so there’s quite a bit involved.”

While Dorfman and Super Impulse’s goal, to a great extent, is to make the smallest possible versions of iconic, instantly recognizable toys, World’s Smallest, he said, is about more than optics; the goal is to capture form and also function.

“The catch is that everything is as small as it possibly can be while still capturing the original function of the full-size toy it’s based on,” Dorfman said. “And an added bonus is that (the World’s Smallest miniatures) are even smaller than the key chains were.”

The functionality of low-tech favorites like the Rubik’s Cube, Etch A Sketch or Mr. Potato Head is one thing — though Dorfman assures that “when we can take an Etch A Sketch and make it work in an inch-and-a-half scale, it’s a wow” — but consider an ’80s-style arcade console, those mammoth, earth-bound machines native to malls and boardwalk arcades and strip-center pizza shops of yesteryear. Now picture these arcade machines many, many magnitudes smaller — small enough that they can be held between thumb and forefinger — functioning in much the same manner as their gargantuan forebears.

“Tiny Arcade has been special,” said Dorfman, who noted choosing a favorite among his toys was like a father choosing a favorite among children. “They’re fully functional, complete working end-to-end miniaturizations of the full original games. Our Pac-Man has all 254 levels. That’s been a favorite; it works so well, and it’s just a big wow.”

Shrinking down iconic toys to microsize is fun, but to make it work, consumers need to think it so much fun that they’re willing to spend new money on smaller versions of toys they already have.

They’re doing it.

So what about playtime in miniature is so intrinsically appealing?

“It’s definitely an emotional connection, an emotional attachment,” Dorfman said. “As long as there’s been play, there have been miniature toys.”

Dorfman and company’s genius may lie in adding the potent sentimentality of nostalgia to this emotional stew.

“Knock on wood,” Dorfman said, hoping parents will continue to want to pass down the pastimes of their youth to their kids. “Between nostalgia and the retro craze and the emotion attached to miniatures, we’ve got a lot of emotion in play here.”

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